Environmental sustainability as a way of life

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For Mayan communities, good living (Buen Vivir) means safeguarding natural resources.

The forest, its wildlife, its trees, and its rivers have a sacred value for the Mayan K’iché inhabitants of Totonicapán, a department located in Guatemala’s western highlands.
Timber logging in a 2-kilometer (3-mile) radius from water sources is strictly forbidden. If a family needs to fell a tree for firewood, it must seek prior consent from indigenous community leaders. Even then, they can fell only the oldest trees. The penalty for infringing these rules depends on the size of the tree they felled. It ranges from planting five trees to paying fines of around 500-800 quetzales, about US$64-102.
To ensure forests regenerate, in May of every year, leaders distribute tree seedlings from a community greenhouse so that every member of the community can plant five trees in an area of their choice.
The community also observes strict rules regarding the use of water from six sources, located in the midst of the forest. These feed the Motagua and Salamá rivers. If a family wishes to build a house it must seek permission from the local water committee. Wasting water on what they regard as superfluous, such as washing cars and motorbikes, is forbidden. In addition, they leave one of the six water sources intact to ensure that local wildlife can get drinking water.


guate2Zero deforestation
It is little wonder that Totonicapán has the lowest deforestation rate in the entire country. According to research conducted by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, between 2006 and 2010, Guatemala’s average deforestation rate was 1 per cent, compared to 0.04 per cent in the department of Totonicapán.
“The people of Totonicapán don’t exploit the forest; we look after it. This is the legacy we inherited from our ancestors,” explained José Santos, president of Totonicapán’s 48 cantons.
Totonicapán’s unique form of community organization dates back to 1820, when Mayan leader Atanasio Tzul led a revolt against excessive tributes imposed by colonial authorities. He bought the Totonicapán forest from the Spanish crown and obtained communal land title deeds. To this day, the historic title deeds are kept in a chest located in Totonicapán’s community hall, under the watchful eye of two indigenous guards.
Since Tzul’s landmark revolt, Totonicapán has been divided into 48 self-governed cantons or alcaldías indígenas. The people of each canton elect committees in charge of various issues such as water, forest resources, public security, the maintenance of the local cemetery, and family matters. A junta directiva or “board of directors” coordinates the cantons. The cantonal mayors elect a president on a yearly basis. The president acts as a mediator in all sorts of conflicts, ranging from domestic disputes, criminal cases, and disputes between indigenous communities and utility companies.
guate3Public service is not remunerated and is compulsory. Everyone takes part in a committee at least three times during their lifetime. This form of self-government coexists with the official political system. Tensions sometimes arise when mayors elected through the party system question the legitimacy of indigenous representatives.

The Mayan people and Buen Vivir
Mayan academic Pascual Pérez, of Kayb’alan Centre, said that Totonicapán’s model of self-governance and its emphasis on environmental conservation is an example of how Guatemala’s indigenous people practice Buen Vivir or “good living.” This essentially means living in harmony with oneself, other members of the community, nature, and one’s surroundings.
Pérez also cites traditional Mayan farming, which is 100 percent organic, as another example of good living. “Chemical fertilizers and pesticides were introduced around 60 years ago. We realized that these substances impoverish the soil and lead to a loss of nutrients, resulting in poor harvests as more and more chemicals are needed,” he explained.
According to Pérez, Mayan farming uses compost and fertilizer made from organic material such as chopped reeds, and crops are balanced in terms of the nutrients they require. For instance, beans and a pumpkin variety known as ayote, are planted around corn crops, or milpas, as legumes fix nitrate in the soil and pumpkin plants generate shade and humidity. Indigenous farmers also reject monocultures and genetically modified crops.
guate4Traditional Mayan agriculture is practised in farms such as Ijat’z, located in the municipality of San Lucas Tolimán, in the department of Sololá. They produce organic coffee, run a greenhouse with native plant varieties, and specialize in vermiculture and other techniques to produce organic fertilizer.
Many Mayan producers, said Pérez, have gone beyond subsistence farming and are exporting coffee and other products. Indigenous people, he explained, are not against the use of technology or the export-driven model per se, as long as farming is organic and sustainable. “A solidarity economic model is based on agro-ecology and prioritizes protection of the community’s quality of life and the farmers’ livelihood,” he said. The Mayan belief in environmental sustainability underpins the Integral Rural Development Bill, which aims to improve food security by democratizing access to land. It was put forward in 2009 but is stalled in Congress. Large landowners, who own 70 per cent of the country’s arable land, fear that it could lead to the transformation of the country’s semi-feudal land ownership model. “We have scattered examples [of buen vivir], but we lack national strategies put forward as public policy. The problem is that public officials always act on behalf of large multinational corporations,” said Pérez.

Louisa Reynolds


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